Meditation Talk: The First Foundation of Mindfulness
Regardless of the program I’m teaching, the population with whom I’m working, or even the context of the class, I always begin any mindfulness program with beginning to focus on and pay attention to the body and the breath. Today we are going to forgo the typical discussion of what it means to actual be or embody mindfulness and instead talk about the places we begin to pay attention in order to uncover our innate capacities to be present with ourselves and our lives in deeply loving and nonjudgmental way. Though this and the other classes I teach are secular in nature, mindfulness as a practice as existed for over 2,600 years and even in the wisdom traditions for which mindfulness was first described, we always begin bringing attention to body and breath. So for the purpose of this talk and our practice together today, I would like to talk about why the body and why the breath.
In a very raw way, we begin with body and breath because they are always here. A few years ago, Jon Kabat-Zinn (father of MBSR) did an interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 minutes. In this interview Jon said something in passing that I still just absolutely he love. He was talking about the ways in which we can practice mindfulness and said “When we wake up in the morning...can we notice the nature of the mind? Are we already thinking about our to do list for the day or can we just take a few breaths to lie there and notice, hey it’s a new day and I’m still alive. When we’re taking a shower, are we actually taking a shower or are there 50 people from our first meeting of the day in the shower with us?” What a funny image of 50 people in my morning shower with me! But Jon makes a great point that I think touches the nature of mindful awareness and why body and breath are always at the heart of our practices:
The mind can be anywhere: it can be in the distant past or hours into the future, but the body and the breath are always undeniably right here, right now.
In terms of a way, a resource, a tool, or an anchor to this moment, there is nothing more raw and real than the body and the flow of breathing. I once had a teacher say, “there are 3 ways we can experience our world: the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere, and the body.” The truth is that we spend so much time in our heads, that to come back to our bodies can be absolutely revolutionary. The mind, in every moment, has the capacity to create a new reality that may or may not have anything to do with the actual reality of what’s happening in our external worlds. The body however is always here. Always here. Of course, how we INTERPRET what is happening in the body is an entirely different conversation as this, inherently, becomes a relationship between body and mind, right? But to arrive right here into unaltered experience of aliveness right now, to touch the most visceral parts of being human, we have be in touch with our bodies.
I think this idea acknowledges another beautiful reason the body is and always should be an access point to presence and the cultivator of mindfulness. Many of us are largely unconnected to our bodies. We may be aware of what’s happening in moments of extreme pain or extreme pleasure, but those in between moments of small goodness or difficulty, the way the body speaks to us about our mental and emotional experiences and connects on the most basic levels, our inner and outer worlds largely go unnoticed. It is only when we begin to pay conscious, curious, and quiet attention to the subtleties of our bodies that we can start to hear and feel the myriad ways the body communicates. When it comes to the way we deeply experience our world, it’s actually the body that responds first. When any stimulus contacts us as being, be it physical touch, sound, energy, light - it always touches the body first. It’s the body that receives and responds to what’s happening in our world, but often because we’ve learned throughout the majority of our lives to ignore the body or trust the stories in our minds, it’s the thoughts about what’s happening that we really notice first. The playful thing I have discovered through my own practice, however, is that the body is an absolutely incredible thing. It’s powerful. It’s active. It’s alive. The beauty that becomes accessible to us as we tune into our bodies is how utterly alive and in tune we are moment by moment. It’s as though the body is always dancing. We bring attention to one part of the body and like a miracle, it seems to come alive with sensation. We travel attention somewhere else - ah, there are things happening here to. The question invariably surfaces: are these things always happening in my body, and I’m just unaware or is it actually the quality of my attention that creates the aliveness? I don’t know that I have or desire to give an answer here, but rather offer the question as something to play with in your own experience.
We can learn so much from our bodies and breath in this way: by bringing a gentle and nonjudgmental attention we start to touch the inherent nature of all things to be impermanent: the breath comes and goes and and is never the same.
Sensations in the body are always changing. Moment by moment we experience that this thing I call my body and even my “self” are never actually solid and the same but rather they are constantly changing and expressing and experience each moment in new and novel ways. Resting in this dance can be such a fascinating experience all on it’s own.
As well, I think that the more we pay attention to the breath - the most visceral experience of giving and receiving life from one moment to the next, and the more we touch the aliveness and sensational experience of actually having a body at all, the more we start to connect with what is sometimes called the pleasure of body. This in itself can be a beautiful thing, but beyond beginning to experience our bodies in new ways and as, in some way, inherently pleasurable, it’s an exquisite experience to recognize that maybe this body is not the way I’ve viewed it throughout my life. In a society that views some bodies as acceptable and others as not, in a space we are often very critical of these vessels of aliveness (or in being vulnerable, at least I have been in my own life), to start feeling and experiencing the body with completely novel reference points has created such gratitude and appreciation for the insane beauty of millions of cells working together in near perfect unison almost all the time! How amazing it is to have a body to pay attention to! In my own life, I have also found that as I began to experience the pleasure of simply having a body, doing absolutely nothing but resting in being, I began to realize how wonderful life has the potential to be in any moment.
If we can touch bliss in doing nothing at all, in simply letting life be exactly as it is, in not exerting any of my own conscious control, in not needing to do or fix, there came the realization that this beauty must always be here, just waiting for me to stop moving and get out of my own head in order to realize it. All of this from body and from the delicious receiving of breath.
In many traditions we hear that we are already awake, already enlightened, our full potential, our perfection is already here! I think it’s through settling ourselves first into the wisdom of the body and the universal connection to being ALIVE in the breath that we begin to touch the most quiet places of goodness in ourselves: that we begin to see the most raw ways we are responding to the world around us, that we begin to FEEL in the most human ways our connection to the world and to our own minds, and that we begin to cultivate a quality of attention that can hold in equanimity anything that arises. I hope your journey into and with your own body and breath is expansive, at times unusual, and regardless of our labels of “good” or “bad” that it creates a safe sanctuary always accessible to you in your own being, just one pause and breath away in any moment.